The Greatest Show on Earth: Catching the Rio Drug Cheats

Alongside the Zika virus threat, the other major issue dominating the build up to the Rio Olympics is the issue of doping, with accusations of a systemic, state-sponsored doping program. The authorities have promised to take a zero-tolerance approach, but catching the Olympic drug cheats has become more difficult than ever. Athletes and medical teams are adept at finding increasingly sophisticated ways to use undetectable amounts of drugs and masking agents.

In response, as part of a hi-tech approach, the Brazilian Doping Control Laboratory has installed the latest analytical technology to test samples for the smallest concentrations of banned substances. Although the laboratory was suspended by The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) last month due to procedural violations of the ISA standards, it has been reinstated and is now ready for action.

Advanced Mass Spectrometry and Doping

The new lab at, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, will be able to test thousands of samples. The process for testing a sample will take less than 24 hours and cover 500 substances on the WADA list of banned substances, including performance-enhancing drugs, metabolites, and masking agents.

Although the laboratory uses an array of analytical processes, the main technique is advanced mass spectrometry. This process identifies molecules by noting their trajectory though a magnetic or electric field, revealing their mass with an unprecedented accuracy.

The laboratory can identify minute concentrations of a banned drug or masking agent. Accordingly, athletes using the tried-and-tested technique of flushing agents out of their system before the event may now be caught where, previously, their samples would show no abnormalities.

Importantly, the lab does not just look for the drug but also tests blood and urine samples for an array of metabolites produced by the breakdown of performance enhancing compounds in the body. These new tests, used on samples from previous games, caught almost 100 athletes from the 2008 Beijing and the 2012 London Olympics, allowing retrospective action.

The laboratory invested millions of dollars in the latest equipment, allowing it to test samples for very low concentrations. The mass spectrometers ionize molecules and cause them to fragment, before subjecting them to electric charges and magnetism to separate them ready for detection. Generally, the particle’s mass gives an initial identification, but because some molecules have the same mass, the lab uses ‘Tandem Spectrometry.’ Here, a series of tests breaks molecules into ever smaller pieces where they are isolated, with the mass-to-charge ratio and analysed by advanced equipment including the orbitrap mass analyzer and a time-of-flight mass spectrometer.

With this equipment, doping at the Rio Olympics will become harder than ever before.

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